David Helvarg 9:30 a.m., Dec. 10
You hear about pop-up restaurants and underground dining experiences the way you hear about anything worthy of checking out -- word of mouth. That's how I learned about Cellar Door, an "underground pop-up restaurant in Normal Heights." Actually, this restaurant is not so much pop-up as underground, as it's located in the chef's home, is only open once a month, and for only ten people at a time. (In addition to the once-a-month restaurant, they also book for private parties of ten.)
Logan, the chef, is back of the house, remaining behind a curtained off kitchen while diners are served by Gary, who acts as front of the house. One would expect a casual, informal atmosphere when dining in someone's home, and you get just that, but without the sense of obligation you usually have towards your hosts. Chef and server are NOT part of the party, they are too busy working to facilitate the professional restaurant atmosphere in an apartment living room setting.
Underground restaurants are the modern-day speakeasies. It's a "closed door restaurant," a dinner party with a suggested donation. According to the ever-knowledgeable Wikepedia, they're also known as "guestaurants," described as "a hybrid between being a guest in a dinner party and a restaurant."
Personally, I love the idea. David is a great cook, and we often host dinner parties, but he is hustling to both provide a great meal AND entertain. As I mentioned above, at an underground restaurant such as Cellar Door, that stress is alleviated on all fronts. Enough background, let's get to the food.
I would have happily paid much more (and did) than the suggested donation amount for this four-course meal, each course paired with a libation. The fare was something I'd expect from an established chef at a notable restaurant. The first course was spicy tuna deviled eggs with fresh wasabi root, paired with Bulleit Rye Maple Lemonade, both pictured below.
I'm not a tuna lover, but the flavors were excellently melded and complimentary, and the cocktail was a refreshing and buzzy way to start off the evening.
Next up was "house pickled beets with warm goat cheese and crostini," paired with Lost Abbey Avant Garde Ale, which reminds me, I should mention that Chef Logan sources most of her beverages and ingredients locally, and that each menu is seasonal to the month and what's available. But back to the pictures.
The beets were delicious, and the tartness of the goat cheese cut the sweetness to just the right amount. Again, the pairing was appropriate and yum.
Ah, the main course! "Hearst Ranch grass fed burger," with aged cheddar, Linkery bacon, a Happy Pantry habanero pickle, all on a housemade bun, served with an amazing charred summer corn "succotash" and paired with Alesmith Nautical Nut Brown Ale. If you've read anything by me before, you know I have a thing for ketchup. I slather it on even my most favorite of ingredients, as that vinegary sweetness can always add an element that my taste-buds would miss. Though Gary was happy to supply me with a small bottle of Heinz, Logan asked only that I'd taste the burger before applying the red stuff. I did, and the bottle remained closed. Mostly because the herbalicious meat was given the complimentary sweet vinegar that I craved by the tomato-corn-and-more side dish. I've been craving this dish every since.
The meal was finished with a nectarine cobbler with housemade buttermilk ice cream.
The desert was delectable (I'm pretty sure I finished it in fewer licks than it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop), but the final cocktail, a whiskey milk punch, was a miss from the overall bulls-eye marks. Mostly because it was a bit too heavy at the end of an abundant meal. I left the drink (without sacrificing an already happy buzz from the other libations and great food), and let the cobbler stand alone.
Needless to say, but that's my deal, saying things I don't need to, I'll be back to see and sample whatever other concoctions Logan and Gary come up with.